“This is probably as close to a red-throated loon as you’ll ever get,” my son Mark said to me.
We were standing a mere 15 feet from a red-throated loon that was floating on the acre-and-a-half reflecting pool at the Penn State Altoona campus. The loon had been hanging out there since March 30, having arrived during a huge fallout of waterfowl throughout our area in west central Pennsylvania.
I watched as students streamed past the pool, most of them unaware of the star waterfowl surrounded by the usual gang of mallards. But the loon was more like the shunned “other,” a solitary royal on its own amid the commoners that dared not approach it.
The loon had a long way to go before it could begin breeding in low tundra wetlands, bogs or forest ponds from Alaska east to Labrador and Newfoundlnd. Here in the East, red-throated loons spend the winter mostly along the Atlantic coast from Newfoundland to Georgia, but at least a few winter in lakes as far west as Bay Spring Lakes in Tishomingo, Mississippi, according to a February 25, 2018 eBird report that listed one wintering red-throated loon as well as 92 common loons.
Red-throated loons, Gavia stellata, are the smallest and most slender of the five loon species in North America. Breeding adults have pearl-gray heads and necks, which the Penn State Altoona loon had but not yet the rust-red patch on its throat that distinguishes it from other loons—common, yellow-billed, Pacific and Arctic—all of which are variously patterned in black and white. In addition, red-throated loons have long, thin bills that tilt upwards.
Red-throated loons also differ in behavior from their congeners. They can take off directly from land instead of requiring a quarter-mile-long patter on top of a larger body of water such as common loons need. Furthermore, red-throated loons don’t carry their young on their backs, again like other loon species, and they forage for food on lakes and even the sea a distance from their breeding territory unlike their congeners that feed on their breeding lakes.
Here in Pennsylvania red-throated loons are uncommon to rare migrants and previously were seen mostly on the lower Delaware River and Lake Erie. For instance, back in 1997 a momentous 200 red-throated loons migrated over Lake Erie, but the usual yearly count is eight. However, all the impoundments in the High Plateau, Ridge and Valley and in the Piedmont away from the Delaware and Susquehanna Rivers, according to Gerald McWilliams and Dan Brauning in The Birds of Pennsylvania, may also encourage more red-throated loons to migrate through Pennsylvania.
Still, the North American Waterbird Conservation Plan calls it a Species of High Concern because of its population decline in North America and northern Europe perhaps due to oil spills, habitat degradation, or entanglement in fish nets, although scientists are not certain about this and need to do more study of these birds.
Once we had admired the red-throated loon, Mark and I headed to Lake Altoona, which he had previously visited with two environmental ethics students at the beginning of the waterfowl fallout. The weather late in March had been unusually cold and windy with frequent snow and rain, and on March 30 they had identified 26 species, most notably 100 redheads, 40 greater scaup, 40 lesser scaup, 100 horned grebes, 25 long-tailed ducks, 100 red-breasted mergansers, and 30 common loons.
During our visit on April 6, three students joined us and we found 24 species in all. That afternoon it gradually warmed to a blustery 50 degrees, and it was partly sunny. The waterfowl numbers had declined from March 30 to six redheads, six greater scaup, three horned grebes, 16 red-breasted mergansers, no long-tailed ducks, and only three common loons, but the loons were below the dam breast of the impoundment, a source of Altoona’s drinking water, and were close and easy to see directly beneath us.
Unlike red-throated loons, at least one pair of common loons nested in Pennsylvania as late as 1946 on Pocono Lake in Monroe County. But since then the nearest breeding common loons are in the Adirondack Mountains of New York. They also breed across Canada, New England, and the upper Midwest.
Best known for their weird, maniacal calls and wavering cries, common loons in their breeding plumage of black heads and necks, the latter with necklaces of black-and-white horizontal stripes, and checkered black-and-white backs look as elegant as men in tuxedos. But in the fall and winter their stout, black bills are light gray, and their bodies are gray-brown above and white below.
Along central Pennsylvania ridges they are common migrants, and I have heard them call occasionally when flying over our ridgetop in the spring. In fact, the same day we were looking for waterfowl, hawk watchers atop nearby Tussey Mountain counted 16 common loons flying north. However, common loons almost lost their commonness during the last century. Because they need clear, clean lakes to dive for fish, build their nests, and raise their young, they cannot tolerate pollution, development, and disturbances.
In the mid-twentieth century, breeding loons began disappearing across North America from California and Oregon, the Midwest from Iowa to Ohio, and from eastern Massachusetts and Connecticut. Then, shortly after the Clean Water Act was passed in the 1970s, they staged a comeback, returning to Massachusetts with 45 breeding pairs on 20 lakes throughout the state by 2015. Across the Great Lakes and the northeast they returned to nest in lakes they had deserted decades before.
Best of all, from our standpoint, was the recovery in the Adirondacks. Down to 200 pairs, there are today between 600 and 850 nesting pairs from the Adirondacks to the Finger Lakes. Altogether, the total North American population is about 250,000 nesting pairs.
While these numbers are encouraging, biologists say that loon numbers are still well below historical numbers. Common loons can dive 75 feet deep and swiftly chase after their fish prey underwater. But they also pick up what appear to be pebbles on the lake bottoms in their gizzards which they need to grind up the fish they eat. Often, the “pebbles” are lead sinkers and jigs from fishing tackle, and when they reach their gizzards, they poison the loons. In only a few days, the loons can’t eat, they are paralyzed, and they die from exposure, suffocation, and starvation.
A study of this problem in New Hampshire from 1989 to 2012 by biologists, with the help of citizen scientists, resulted in a paper that found that 49 per cent of 253 dead loons had died from lead poisoning. In New York a similar study found that lead had been responsible for between 15 to 21 percent of loon deaths.
As Harry Vogel, wildlife biologist and director of the Loon Preservation Committee told writer Lauren Chambliss in an article in the Summer 2018 Living Bird, “It’s a terrible death for these birds. And it is so easily avoidable.”
We continued watching other waterfowl at Lake Altoona including two blue-winged teal, two gadwall, three American wigeons, a tundra swan, 10 northern shovelers, 50 ring-necked ducks, 10 buffleheads, two common mergansers and four pied-billed grebes. Eight Bonaparte’s gulls flew overhead.
After an exciting hour there, Mark and I drove to Canoe Creek State Park because, as Mark said, “Once you’re in waterfowl mode, you must keep going.”
Canoe Lake is 155 acres, much larger than Lake Altoona, and provides excellent resting and feeding stopover for waterfowl. By the time we arrived, in late afternoon, it had clouded over and the wind blew at gale force, whipping up waves that made it difficult to spot waterfowl.
But we set up our scope and scanned the lake. We located a flock of seven common loons, two gadwalls, three mallards, five buffleheads, 14 red-breasted mergansers, two ruddy ducks, two pied-billed grebes, and 10 American coots. Fifteen double-crested cormorants landed on the water with wings spread like huge bats and two killdeer ran along the sandy beach.
Without Mark’s help, I doubt I would have seen as many waterfowl, but, in addition to the loons, my favorite sightings were the white-cheeked, dark-capped, rusty-red male ruddy ducks, the puffy-headed, black-and-white buffleheads, the crested red-breasted mergansers, and, best of all, the stunning golden crowned horned grebes. The grebes, too, were heading far north to breed on lakes and ponds from the Brooks Range in Alaska east to the western shore of Hudson Bay.
In fact, almost all the waterfowl we saw that day were only passing through the state for places to breed far to the north or west of us. That is why I make it a practice every spring to visit nearby lakes to admire these birds in their gaudy, breeding attire.